Trouble by Katja Ivar Review

Trouble by Katja Ivar, a wonderfully captivating story of secrets and intrigue set in Helsinki in 1953, during the early years of the Cold War. Read my full review.

Trouble Synopsis

Detective Hella Mauzer #3

Set in Finland, early summer 1953. Hella Mauzer the first-ever woman Inspector in the Helsinki Homicide Unit has been fired and is now a reluctant private investigator

Hella has been asked by the police to do a background check on Johannes Heikkinen, a senior member of the Finnish secret services. Heikkinen has a complicated past: a child dead just weeks after birth and a wife who died in the fire that destroyed their house a few years later. Background checks are not exactly the type of job Hella was hoping for, but she accepts it on the condition that she is given access to the files concerning the roadside death of her father in 1942. Colonel Mauzer, his wife and other family members were killed by a truck in a hit and run incident. An accident, file closed, they say. But not for Hella, whose unwelcome investigation leads to some who would prefer to see her stopped dead in her tracks.

Bitter Lemon Press, 2023

Genre(s) Mystery & Detective, Historical Crime Fiction

Katja Ivar | Pub Date Feb 21, 2023 | ISBN 9781913394776 | 220 pages

Book Review

Historical crime fiction isn’t a favorite genre, and I rarely read any. So, after learning from the synopsis that Trouble is set in 1953, I ordinarily might have taken a miss. But since a publisher I admire offered the book, and I’ve never received a bad book from them, I chose to read it. And I’m so glad I did. It’s a marvelous, tightly plotted and absorbing mystery tale. 

It’s early summer in 1953 in Helsinki, Finland, and the world grapples with the early years of the Cold War (1945–1990). Former Helsinki homicide unit inspector Hella Mauzer is finding her feet as a private investigator. When her former boss hires Mauzer to do a routine background check on a man being considered to head the department’s homicide unit, she reluctantly agrees, hoping to get something in return. Hella wants access to the files concerning the hit-and-run incident that killed her entire family, father, mother, sister, and nephew, when she was eighteen years old. The assignment not only forces Hella to face the ghosts of her painful past, but sets her on a collision course with a dangerous present and uncertain future. 

When Hella investigates Johannes Heikkinen, a member of the Finnish secret services, she gets nothing but glowing reports about his character and reputation from acquaintances, neighbors, and relatives. But something feels off when she learns Heikkinen had a child who died just weeks after birth and that his wife died in a house fire two years later. The authorities ruled the death of the wife accidental. But after talking with the pathologist who did the autopsy, Hella suspects murder. The deeper Hella digs into Heikkinen’s background, the more certain she becomes the man may have pulled off the perfect crime and she will never prove he murdered his wife. Meanwhile, probing the deaths of her family members, Hella uncovers information that points her toward the person responsible and that person intends to stop her inquiries even if it means stopping Hella dead in her tracks, literally. She’ll need to keep her gun at the ready, because Hella is facing something even more ominous than her painful memories. 

I adored our leading lady, Hella Mauzer, who is realistic and likeable. Ivar peppers her engaging prose with vivid descriptions of place and evocative character-building expressions and weaves stirring social commentary into Hella’s inner dialogue. The resourceful and gutsy Hella walks toward danger, following new avenues of investigation into puzzling mysteries and finds answers aplenty to long buried secrets about her painful past. Even when the forthright expression of her open-minded opinions leads her into perilous situations, Hella perseveres in seeking justice. 

I unreservedly recommend this book to crime fiction fans who enjoy feisty, strong, and intelligent female leads. For those like me, who may feel indifferent about reading historical crime fiction, this book may change your mind. It certainly changed mine. It’s a solid detective mystery that seems timeless, offering two mysteries for the price of one that Ivar pulls together seamlessly by the novel’s end. 

I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin Review

Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin, a labyrinthine tale of Edinburgh cops tracking a vicious serial killer who preys on young girls with a plot that smolders but never quite catches fire.

Knots and Crosses Synopsis

Inspector Rebus #1

Detective John Rebus: His city is being terrorized by a baffling series of murders…and he’s tied to a maniac by an invisible knot of blood. Once John Rebus served in Britain’s elite SAS. Now he’s an Edinburgh cop who hides from his memories, misses promotions and ignores a series of crank letters. But as the ghoulish killings mount and the tabloid headlines scream, Rebus cannot stop the feverish shrieks from within his own mind. Because he isn’t just one cop trying to catch a killer, he’s the man who’s got all the pieces to the puzzle…

St. Martin’s Minotaur, 1987

Genre(s) Mystery & Detective, International Crime

Ian Rankin | Pub Date 1987 (First) | ISBN 9780312536923 | 228 pages

Book Review

Knots and Crosses is the brooding 1987 debut police thriller by Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, introducing his Detective Inspector John Rebus character, a hard drinking Scottish detective with a troubled past, and launching the series that made Rankin famous. It’s a labyrinthine tale of Edinburgh cops tracking a vicious serial killer who preys on young girls. The plot smolders but never quite catches fire. Yet the quality of the writing in this nearly thirty-six-year-old novel, written while Rankin was a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, illustrates why Rankin is one of the top crime writers in the business today. He shows off his encyclopedic knowledge of Edinburgh and its surrounds, the setting of most of the Rebus novels, and he expertly details the painstaking investigation procedures used by Edinburgh detectives trying to catch a killer with the technology of the times. I’m late to the party with Rankin and his Rebus series, surprising since I read as much international crime as I do the domestic variety. So, after an opportunity to read and review A Heart Full of Headstones (2022), the most recent book in the series, I enjoyed it so much that I knew I had to go back to the genesis of John Rebus and read the entire series. In this first book, Rebus, a detective sergeant, is already something of a black sheep among his colleagues for his loner ways. He’s divorced with a young daughter and has a morose persona thanks mostly to his haunted past while in the Special Air Squadron (SAS), a time of his life, Rebus is loath to speak about to anyone. In A Heart Full of Headstones, it mentions the nervous breakdown Rebus suffered because of traumatic experiences during SAS training and that made me curious to learn the full story, another motivation for reading this novel. And that story is fully presented, which aids us in our understanding of the Rebus character and why he became the man he did. A major plot point in this story is the killer delivers notes to Rebus containing clues to the killer’s identity and motives, yet because of the past trauma, Rebus involuntarily suppresses his memories of the traumatic events so completely that he’s unable to comprehend the meaning behind the clues and that the killings all link to Rebus in a deeply personal way. While I’m no expert on the effects of extreme emotional and mental trauma, that seems to stretch credibility a bit too much for my liking. Before an event occurs that frees Rebus to recall things from his past that finally enables him to understand the clues that point him to the killer, the suspect raises the stakes by making things even more personal for Rebus, pushing the detective almost to the breaking point. Once we arrive at the expected but all too brief climax in a forgotten tunnel beneath the city, we learn the identity of the not-so-surprising villain. There are subplots aplenty in the book, such as the stories behind some intimate relationships involving Rebus, and a tangled situation involving his brother, Michael. And Rankin pulls all these threads together for us by the end. There is much to like about Knots and Crosses despite the plot weaknesses and the book is well worth reading if only for someone new to the series to learn the essentials of the genesis of Detective Inspector Rebus.

Book rating: ★★★★

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Dark Angel by John Sandford Review

Dark Angel by John Sandford, another worthy page-turner from a crime thriller virtuoso. Read my full review.

Dark Angel Synopsis

A Letty Davenport Novel #2

Letty Davenport’s days working a desk job at are behind her. Her previous actions at a gunfight in Texas—and her incredible skills with firearms—draw the attention of several branches of the US government, and make her a perfect fit for even more dangerous work.

The Department of Homeland Security and the NSA have tasked her with infiltrating a hacker group, known only as Ordinary People, that is intent on wreaking havoc. Letty and her reluctant partner from the NSA pose as free-spirited programmers for hire and embark on a cross country road trip to the group’s California headquarters.

While the two work to make inroads with Ordinary People and uncover their plans, they begin to suspect that the hackers are not their only enemy. Someone within their own circle may have betrayed them, and has ulterior motives that place their mission—and their lives—in grave danger.

(Penguin Group G. P. Putnam’s Sons, April 2023)

Genre(s) Suspense & Thrillers

John Sandford | Pub Date Apr 11, 2023 | ISBN 9780593422410 | 384 pages

Book Review

“You killed three people in Texas, and two more, five years ago, in St. Paul. How do you feel about that?”

“If you’re asking if I’m suffering from PTSD, the answer is ‘No.’ If you’re asking if I enjoyed it, the answer is ‘No,’” Letty said. “I have no urge to kill anyone, but I’m willing to, if pushed into a corner.”

So explains Sandford’s lead character, Letty Davenport, when asked about her background when the National Security Agency (NSA) brings her in for an undercover op to track down a well-organized cell of hackers known as Ordinary People. The NSA reps tell her the hackers are nosing around natural gas distribution systems and they think the group intends to shut down the natural gas supply of a northern city in a ransomware attack which could, in the dead of winter, cause civilian fatalities. The NSA wants Letty to hook up with one of their computer specialists and to protect him as he tries to infiltrate the hacker cell to identify as many of them as possible so the agency can avert the ransomware attack. Letty still works as an investigator for the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, although her real boss is Senator Christopher Colles, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. While Letty suspects the NSA reps aren’t telling her the entire story, she accepts the assignment when Colles asks her to take it. Once Letty and her computer specialist partner, Rod Baxter, arrive in L.A., the home turf of Ordinary People and start contacting people who can introduce them to members of the hacker group, Letty soon realizes her suspicions are well-founded. There is much about the operation the NSA didn’t tell her and Baxter when they signed on. It isn’t long before they discover the NSA has pitted them against a far more dangerous adversary than a bunch of computer nerds, and their actual mission has nothing to do with keeping someone from shutting off natural gas supplies.

The Letty Davenport series is a new spin-off series, but Letty is far from a new character. She is the adopted daughter of Lucas Davenport, currently a U. S. Marshal, and the lead character in Sandford’s bestselling Prey series and appeared in many of the Prey novels. Because Lucas is aging out as a believable law enforcement character, Letty seems to be the heir apparent to the Davenport legacy and franchise. Those unfamiliar with Letty would do well to read Naked Prey, the fourteenth book in the Prey series that introduces her. Understanding her backstory helps provide an accurate understanding of why she is the woman she is in this series. I love the Letty Davenport character for many reasons. First, she is an excellent, strong female lead character. I like the persona Sandford has created for her, making her seem like a person, not a caricature. Finally, I like Letty because she is so much like her father that she and Lucas might as well be blood kin. That’s something she is well aware of, as this quote from the book illustrates.

“He [Lucas Davenport] and I are a lot alike. Uh… My mom says we both look at the world through untinted glasses. We don’t think about what it might be, or should be, or used to be, only what it is.”

Like Lucas, Letty is the predator when it comes to taking down violent criminals. She isn’t bloodthirsty, but also like her father, she has no qualms about shooting people that need it and may even lean a little towards being a sociopath.

One thing John Sandford does best is strong characterization. And in Dark Angel he offers a full slate of interesting, fully developed characters, including the believable antagonists. John Kaiser, a former special forces operator and another Department of Homeland Security investigator who teams up with Letty in the first book, is back in this one. He is another likeable and relatable character. Also, Sandford introduces a new standout character, Barbara Cartwright, a CIA officer, who shares both a similar background and a similar personality with Letty. Only Cartwright is a little bloodthirsty. She ends up in L.A. as a reinforcement once things get tense for Letty and Baxter. I have a feeling we’ll see more of Cartwright as the series progresses.

John Sandford, one of my favorite crime authors, is an excellent writer and storyteller. That’s not surprising since he began his career as a journalist. His books always reveal thorough research and he gets things right. But something I admire about Sandford is his imagination. Time and again he comes up with original, absorbing stories and plots built around current events that make them even more realistic. This book is no exception. While his Prey series is my favorite because I really like the Lucas Davenport character, I think Dark Angel is every bit as good as the best novels in the Prey series. I loved the first book in the series, The Investigator, but enjoyed this one even more.

My advice is to begin reading this book early in the day, because Sandford grabs you from the start and you won’t want to put this book down until you read the last page.

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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When the House Burns by Priscilla Paton Review

When the House Burns by Priscilla Paton has a murder mystery at its center, but it’s ultimately a character-driven story featuring real people with real problems. Read my full review.

When the House Burns Synopsis

A Twin Cities Mystery

When death comes home, is nowhere safe? The quest for love and home becomes deadly when Detectives Erik Jansson and Deb Metzger search for the killer of an adulterous real estate agent.

A volatile real estate market, unrest in a homeless encampment, jealousies among would-be lovers, a case of arson—these circumstances thwart G-Met detectives Erik Jansson and Deb Metzger as they investigate the murder of an adulterous woman. The victim’s estranged husband has holes in his alibi. A property developer grieves too much over the death of the woman while his wife shuts him out. The developer’s assistant resents his boss and suspects that the developer was not only involved with the victim but is being scammed by the arsonist. A sexy young widow, friend of the victim, has past traumas triggered by the case and turns to the developer for protection. A homeless man stalked the dead woman and now stalks the young widow. All may hold secrets about the past burning of an apartment complex and the man who died there.

Before the clues come together, Erik Jansson is trapped in an abandoned house as Deb Metzger hunts for a sharpshooter at a remote construction site. The case will burn down around them unless they can scheme their way out of lethal surroundings.

(Coffeetown Press, February 2023)

Genre(s) Mystery & Detective

Priscilla Paton | Pub Date 02.14.2023 | ISBN 9781684920815 | 242 pages

Book Review

Amazonian-size Detective Deb Metzger of Greater Metro Investigations (G-Met), a specialized regional Minnesota’s Twin Cities police agency, has her desperate search for a permanent home interrupted when dispatched to the scene of a homicide. She meets her partner, Detective Erik Jansson, in the driveway of a house for sale where a dog walker had discovered the body of a late-forties realtor with a gunshot wound to her head. At Jansson’s suggestion, Metzger takes the lead on the case since she is the expert on violence against women. After ruling out a carjacking or robbery gone wrong, the detectives settle on the theory the killer is probably someone who was close to the victim, maybe a past or present intimate partner, given the murder seemed personal. Lacking much in the way of physical evidence since the body was exposed to heavy rains for hours before discovery, they begin the tedious process of interviewing the victim’s circle of close associates, checking alibis and looking for motive. They interview the woman’s ex-husband, her boss, and co-workers. While authentic, this wearisome process slows the investigation to a glacial pace, but not so the story since this is more a character-driven story than your typical plot-driven whodunit. At the heart of that story is Metzger and Jansson, two likeable central characters made relatable because they are real people with real problems. Besides attempting to avoid becoming homeless by finding a place to live before her current arrangements with a long-stay rental unit expire, Metzger is also lovelorn. The woman who is the object of Metzger’s affections has been in Paris for months, caring for her aged employer, and Deb feels the relationship is slipping away. Jansson has relationship problems of his own as he tries to come to grips with a recent divorce he didn’t want and desperately wants a woman in his life. The ongoing dramas in the lives of the two main characters keep the story moving and the reader engaged. Paton’s impeccable characterization impressed me. She not only breathes life into Metzger and Jansson, but offers a full slate of fully developed, interesting characters to round out the cast, and even fleshes out incidental roles enough to make the characters feel real. The other thing that made this book an engaging read is Paton’s wry humor that permeates the story through the dialogue and characters’ inner thoughts. She sustained this from beginning to end, no mean feat. It’s the kind of deadpan humor I most appreciate and fits the genre to perfection. Humor aside, there are of course weightier themes in the novel as Paton critiques topics like the lack of adequate affordable housing, homelessness, and violence against women. This is a well-crafted novel with excellent writing, witty dialogue, and plenty of humor. There’s a murder mystery at its center, but it’s ultimately a character-driven story featuring real people with real problems. When the House Burns is a worthy addition to the stacks of those who enjoy reading detective mysteries featuring a cast of compelling characters.

I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★

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Other People’s Secrets by Meredith Hambrock Review

Other People’s Secrets by Meredith Hambrock, a slow-burn thriller, but so much more. There’s humor and pathos and sheer good story telling as the book unfolds. Read my full review.

Other People's Secrets Synopsis

Baby’s down—and could be out for good—when she faces off with forces bent on turning her lakeside paradise into a living hell.

Baby’s heart is in the right place, but she’s got problems—namely, a fierce taste for booze and an on-again, off-again boyfriend who can’t commit. She’s living and working at Oakwood Hills, a crumbling lakeside resort, with her friends, Crystal Nugget and DJ Overalls, reeling since her adoptive mother died of a stroke. And now, the return of the local drug kingpin, Bad Mike, is about to throw her already unstable summer into full-blown chaos.

To make matters worse, the owner of Oakwood Hills announces plans to sell the resort to Amelia, her boyfriend’s wealthy twin sister, who plans to renovate it, sucking the life out of the only home Baby’s ever known. Desperate to thwart the sale, Baby and her friends decide to try to recover a sunken treasure rumored to be sitting at the bottom of the lake. But Bad Mike also has his eyes on the prize and when the search gets criminal, Baby will be forced to walk down a road full of hidden secrets that will change how she sees herself—and her life—forever.

(Crooked Lane Books, 2022)

Meredith Hambrock | Pub Date 09.26.2022 | ISBN 9781639100989 | 288 pages

Book Review

Other People’s Secrets is a unique standout amongst the usual genre fiction I read and review for many reasons. It’s categorized as a thriller and qualifies as such. But the book is so much more than that. It has a definite literary fiction heft to it as far as writing style and plot scale. And when I say literary, I don’t mean pretentious and boring. I mean it in the sense that Hambrock’s prose provides insight that creates a stronger understanding of the world and of the human condition. As an example, Hambrock uses carefully crafted sentences that often rely heavily on symbolism. And this is a character-driven story rather than one that delivers a fast-paced plot aimed at encouraging the reader to leave behind the problems of reality and to focus squarely on being entertained. Instead, what Hambrock does is open up to her readers a place where its people and its mood can be felt, captured, and understood. This place is Oakwood Hills, a decaying summer resort that has seen better days. It’s on the edge of a lake, inside the mythical nondescript town of Lakeside. The resort features an equally ramshackle dive bar called the Bloody Parrot, which is central to the story. 

“Baby hid inside a summer resort on the edge of Bitborough Lake, inside a town so boring it was simply called Lakeside, home to 672 people, inside a dive bar called the Bloody Parrot, with ceilings that were caving in, thick drops of water constantly condensing and falling on heads and shoulders, paint curling off the walls, a constant smell of deep-fried something thick in the air, with a floor so sticky it was impossible to clean.” 

The people are a mix of resort workers, meth addicts and drug dealers, summer vacationers, absentee wealthy lakeside vacation homeowners, and others who are either genuinely worn down or who live humbly in this once popular, but declining town, and choose not to move on to more prosperous areas. The story itself centers on a twenty-nine-year-old woman named Jane Doe, but everyone calls her Dumpster Baby, Baby for short, and her group of pals. They all work at the resort and bar during the summers, hoping to earn enough to get through the winters. Amongst their friendships and revelry is a deep sadness and loneliness which both the town and its inhabitants, but particularly Baby, suffer from. When the owner of the resort and bar suddenly sells out and ups sticks for Florida, with their livelihoods put at risk, the gang, led by Baby, conspire to discourage the new owner and stop the changes she has in mind for the resort. They feel certain the new owner will take away their jobs and destroy their beloved town and desperately want to stop her. Their scheme succeeds, but then things go terribly wrong when long kept dangerous secrets surface and lives get put at risk. 

In Other People’s Secrets, Hambrock’s narrative serves to widen the lens from individual characters onto the plight of the townspeople in general. She often introduces the reader to minor characters, residents of or visitors to the town who emphasize certain extremities of real life, often cruel in nature (death, crime, drug addiction, poverty, violence, suicide, etc.). The purpose of Hambrock’s method of shaping the primary story in this way is to shape a world, to give feeling and context to a group of people, without having to focus on one person in particular. This allows the story to be about a general community rather than individuals, which allows the conversation to be about a class or type of people, a region, rather than a character. The place, in fact, becomes the person. Besides this, the specific characters Hambrock introduces, such as Baby, DJ Coveralls, Crystal, Marco, Johnny, and Peter Pomoroy, Baby’s on and off rich boyfriend, are all distinct, realistic, and purposeful. Their interactions with one another are interesting and believable, but their internal thought processes are perhaps the most fascinating of all. 

Hambrock clearly loves her central character, Baby. She revealed as much in a recent interview with Dawn Ius (Ius, D. 2022, September 30. Up Close: Meredith Hambrock. THE BIG THRILL. 

“I love Baby. She is a fully formed person in my head. I love her so deeply, it’s hard for me to see her flaws as flaws. It’s bad. I think it was hard for me to write her f-boy boyfriend, Peter, to have compassion for him. But I hope I did!” 

And why not? Dumpster Baby is an unconventional protagonist—messy and honest. And that makes her fascinating. Also, Hambrock gives her such an unusual backstory. She is known to most as Dumpster Baby (Baby for short) because she was born in a dumpster. 

“Dumpster Baby, pink skinned and screaming, was discovered behind a grocery store, nestled on a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Once she was taken into custody, leaving the Cheetos cellophane bag behind, she becomes something unremarkable. Another orphan Jane Doe, case number #45BN6ab9.” 

While Baby’s adoptive mother, Hannah, insisted on keeping the official name Jane Doe for her because she thought it was a pretty, innocent name, Baby rebelled, demanding everyone call her Dumpster Baby so she could walk through the world honestly. 

I’m now a huge fan of Hambrock’s prose and style. In this book, she offers many passages with incredible descriptions, brief passages that are almost poetic in their beauty. She has a talent for not just seeing but also feeling people and places, then somehow transfiguring these sensations into written language. Hambrock also captures mood and tone with her narrative voice and through her use of dialogue. We learn much about Baby, for instance, without being granted access to Baby’s point of view necessarily. Instead, we learn about her through the way others treat her, through Hambrock’s descriptions of her, and by the way Baby and Peter’s relationship is presented in the narrative. Baby, as one single character, comes to mean much more on the narrative level. She represents a type of person, but because of the straightforward and sometimes raw way Hambrock describes her, she can represent a group of people without becoming incongruous. Ultimately, Hambrock’s prose and straightforward style, with brief interludes of poetic, almost romantic language, suits the tone of the novel and the nature of its characters and plot.

Other People’s Secrets is about people and place, but its purpose is somewhat ambiguous. The emotion and pathos are there, but the reader is allowed simply to bear witness to a community, perhaps even becoming a part of it, without being guided toward feeling one way or another about anyone in the town (even Baby, loved by everyone, but still has many faults). Hambrock allows us to draw our own conclusions and to choose how we feel about each character as we come to know them. Thematically, the book touches on topics like friendship, community, poverty, families, survival, income inequality, and a struggle to find self-worth. There is also a good amount of humor, counterbalancing a relatively somber tone. 

Simply put, I adored this book. It’s a richly patterned story spun out in layers to form a coherent and fascinating whole. It’s far from shallow. At times, the surface of the novel is so frothy you may barely notice the deeper currents, or its unique and daring structure. But it’s all there. The story builds up to shocking climax, as long-kept secrets come out. The characters, many of them the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, drive the plot, and Hambrock makes them human and likable (except for those we aren’t supposed to like). You won’t find as much emphasis on crime here as in some thriller genre fiction. But you will encounter a violent drug dealer and other assorted psychopaths. There’s also a treasure hunt. What more could you want? This one is a gem, and I highly recommend it.

I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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The Soho Killer by Biba Pearce Review

The Soho Killer by Biba Pearce, a compellingly plotted and compulsive read, full of twists.

The Soho Killer Synopsis

Detective Rob Miller Mysteries #6

A serial killer who dumps the victims’ bodies in Soho Square. A sleepless detective thwarted by his box-ticking boss.

Detective Rob Miller thinks he’s seen it all, but this murder scene takes his breath away.

The victim is bound and gagged, with whip marks on his back. The location is one of the busiest squares in London. The cause of death appears to be strangulation.

Murder or a game gone wrong?

The prime suspect is the victim’s partner. Under pressure from his superiors, Rob makes an arrest despite his doubts.

But another body is found: bound, gagged and dumped in the middle of central London. Again, there are no witnesses.

Now Rob’s on the hunt for a serial killer with a fetish — and a talent for staying invisible.

Then the killer makes it personal . . .

(Joffe Books, November 2022)

Biba Pearce | Pub Date 11.17.2022 | ISBN 9781804055618 | 286 pages

Book Review

The Soho Killer is the sixth title of Pearce’s Detective Rob Miller series, and the third I’ve read. While I’ve been reading the series from the beginning, I skipped ahead to read the latest series release. These are comfort reads for me in the sense I know what to expect. I can feel confident that Pearce will deliver it, and that’s always been the case. Far from formulaic as series like this sometimes are, with every book she delivers new imaginative crimes for Miller to solve along with many clever plot twists that keep us eagerly turning the pages. 

Quite a lot has changed in our lead character’s life since the last book in the series I reviewed, The West London Murders. Rob Miller has promoted from Detective Inspector (DI) to Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) and now contends with the inconveniences of holding a supervisory position while trying to solve murders. He also reports to a new boss, Superintendent Felicity Mayhew and his Major Investigation Team features new members. Not only has DCI Miller’s work circumstances changed, Rob has a new wife and infant son at home to go along with his dog, Trigger, first introduced in the second book. And Trigger plays an important role in this story, always appreciated by dog lovers like me. DCI Miller and the former Jo Maguire, a detective who worked with Miller in previous cases, have married. Jo now works part time at MI5, which also plays a significant role in this tale. 

These novels usually include one overarching mystery that gradually increases in complexity, and a couple of support acts in the guise of Miller’s personal life and dealings with his superintendent and other agencies. The same is true here, although Pearce offers more threads to follow than in earlier books. And, as usual, this sixth Rob Miller outing is tremendously good fun. 

The book opens with an ominous, foreshadowing prologue featuring a murder occurring twenty years in the past. And then, after an unexpected, and unpleasant reunion with his long-estranged father, Ronnie (one of the support acts in this book), DCI Miller and his team get stuck into a rather bizarre murder investigation in Soho, not a part of London within their usual remit. A passerby discovers the body of a male victim, kitted out in a sadomasochism outfit on the lawn of a public park. The Major Investigation Team gets the case because the station with jurisdiction over the Soho district is overwhelmed with dealing with demonstrating activists. The initial investigation by Miller and his team reveals the victim is a married gay artist. But they aren’t certain if they have a homicide or an accidental death by erotic misadventure given the victim’s outfit, until Liz Kramer, the pathologist we met in previous books, confirms the victim, Michael Bennett, died from strangulation. The team must then consider the possibility of a hate crime as they get busy with the procedural minutiae of investigating a homicide, interviewing the victim’s husband, canvassing the area for witnesses, and reviewing CCTV recordings for clues to the identity of the killer. When interviewing the victim’s partner, Ralph Keaton, he tells Miller and the team neither Bennett nor he had any interest in BDSM and couldn’t imagine why his partner was found dressed in sadomasochism paraphernalia. That makes things even more baffling for the detectives. 

No sooner has the Major Investigation Team started the Bennett investigation than someone discovers the body of a second male victim, dressed in the same peculiar sadomasochism outfit, and also tortured and raped by instrumentation, and then strangled. But this victim is an official in the British secret services, which adds further complexity to the mix. The team struggles to find something more than the obvious connection by M.O. which suggests the same killer that links the men, but shockingly find no hard evidence that the second victim was gay. But faced again with the specter he is dealing with yet another serial killer, DCI Miller calls on his old friend, Tony Sanderson, a renowned criminal profiler, to help his understanding of the suspect’s motive, and Sanderson joins the team as a consultant. 

For those who enjoy reading crime mysteries, trying to work out the whodunit ahead of the police, Pearce brilliantly throws in plenty of red herrings along the way that mislead us. About midway through, I thought I’d figured it out, but discovered I was so wrong when Pearce finally revealed the killer at the shocking climax. And indeed, that was far from the only surprise Pearce offers us in this gripping story. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers, but will say in this latest Detective Rob Miller book, Pearce has compellingly plotted and produced a compulsive read that is full of devious twists. No doubt she will continue this excellent series since Pearce offered a few hints of future story threads to explore. 

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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A Knock on the Door by Roberta K. Fernandez Review

A Knock on the Door by Roberta K. Fernandez, touches deftly on themes surrounding technology, power, and greed and the dangers they present when no limits are imposed. Read my full review.

A Knock on the Door Synopsis

Lori Crawford’s world is turned upside down when her husband dies in a car accident. After twenty-five years of marriage, she thought she would forever live an uncomplicated, happy life with Jack. But just as Lori feels she’s coming out on the other side of her grief, Jack’s assistant at SpringWare, Rita Johnson, discovers information that convinces her that Jack was murdered.

The two women vow to bring the perpetrator to justice. But time is running out, and their names are on someone’s kill list. The truth takes them down a path they never could have suspected. They set out to bring down one of the most powerful men in the country: the director of the National Security Agency. But who will believe them? And how many more will die before they do? Now, they have to decide if they have the courage—and the ability—to finish what they started.

(Subplot Publishing, October 2022)

Roberta K. Fernandez | Pub Date 10.06.2022 | ISBN 9781637554739 | 392 pages

Book Review

A Knock on the Door opens with a brief prologue where Roberta K. Fernandez gives us the final thoughts of a man named Jack Crawford in the last moments of his life. While driving on a freeway, after he hears what he believes is a gunshot, Crawford loses control of his car. It spins out of control across three lanes of traffic before crashing through a guardrail and plunging into a river below. That makes us eager to know more about Jack and about what led to his death. 

Fernandez then opens the first chapter, introducing us to Jack’s former assistant Rita Johnson, one of the lead protagonists. She had worked with Jack for eighteen years before moving to her present position in the same software company, SpringWare, working for Mark Mason, the vice president. Mason has tasked Rita with going through Jack’s computer to retrieve what they needed to finish an important project Jack had been working on before his death. Jack Crawford had been almost like a son to Rita, who is a woman in her sixties now, and she still hasn’t come to grips with his sudden death. She anguishes over not trying harder to stay connected with him and his wife, Lori. As she reviews the folders on Jack’s computer, she discovers something odd, an encrypted folder he had named using a code word the two of them had once used for highly sensitive projects. Curious, Rita copies the files to a CD. Later, once she investigates further, Rita discovers something horrific. She feels certain Jack’s car crash was no accident. Someone murdered him and Rita comes to believe they did it because of the project Jack had worked on. Then we’re off and running into the action. 

Rita keeps digging into the files she copied from Jack’s computer and learns more of the shocking truth. While SpringWare is a gaming company, she discovers that her current boss, Mason, has agreed with the NSA (the National Security Agency) to deliver a surveillance program that could collect private data on everyone using the Internet. Mason had only allowed those who worked on the software limited access to the whole to keep the purpose of the program secret. But what she found convinced Rita Jack Crawford somehow figured out the intended purpose of the software and who the client was. Growing more certain that led to his death, after some soul searching, she contacts Crawford’s widow, Lori, and tells her Jack’s death was no accident. Someone killed him to prevent him from exposing the secretive piece of software destined for the NSA. 

The deeper we get into the story, the more A Knock on the Door reminds us thematically of the 1998 American political action thriller film, Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman. Like the movie, which also attacked “the surveillance society,” the plot explores what happens when powerful bureaucrats and demagogues use the power of the government to gain their own ends and cover their own tracks. And after Rita convinces Lori that someone murdered her husband over a secret surveillance program, together they continue probing, hoping to bring those responsible for Jack’s murder to justice. When two other SpringWare employees connected to the program’s development die suddenly and under suspicious circumstances, Rita and Lori realize just what they are facing and that they may very well become the next victims. They take Jacob Browning, a programmer at SpringWare, into their confidences when they feel certain his life is at risk. Jacob is the “last man standing” among those who worked on parts of the program, unaware of the software’s intended use. And Jacob’s computer skills come in handy as the trio continues uncovering evidence that not only implicates their very demanding, and not particularly pleasant boss Mark Mason in the murders, but also Carl Baxter, the ruthless head of the NSA. 

Since Fernandez reveals whodunit early on, the book is far more a thriller than a mystery tale. But by throwing in several surprises along the way, she deftly raises the stakes and ratchets up the tension and heart-pounding suspense all the way through to the splendid climax. 

It’s no secret I’m a stickler for authenticity with crime fiction, and must say the premise here is more than a little far-fetched in spots. As an example, in the scenario of two ordinary women trying to bring down the head of one of the nation’s most powerful and clandestine intelligence agencies, it requires little imagination to predict who would be the bug and who the windshield. Also, the story lacks a character like Brill (Gene Hackman’s character) in Enemy of the State, a former spy who understands the inner workings of the intelligence community, to help Rita and Lori. So, we can’t escape the feeling our ruthless, powerful antagonist, Carl Baxter, should easily prevail against the cast of unremarkable civilian good guys in over their heads. But by and large, the story works. In this post-Edward Snowden era, the plot feels perilously close to plausible. When many of us have watched the heads of American intelligence agencies boldly lying before Congress on television, and read about the recent politically motivated FISA court abuses by the FBI, you needn’t be paranoid to feel distrustful of many of our most powerful federal agencies. It’s not the government that is the enemy, but the unelected bureaucrats and demagogues who use the power of the government to pursue their own agendas with no conscience and seemingly no real oversight from our elected officials. This makes A Knock on the Door feel uncomfortably real. 

With only a little suspension of belief required, the most demanding fast-paced thriller fans will find this a very gripping and entertaining book. Roberta K. Fernandez displays excellent story-telling ability and offers us a cast of likeable and relatable lead characters blindsided by the misused power of the state, along with a believable antagonist convinced that his job somehow places him above the law that we love to hate. From the perspective of pure escapism, I found it both an entertaining and riveting read with much to like. I could imagine easily a filmmaker adapting it for film. 

I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★

About the Author

In her sixty-three years of life, Roberta Fernandez, a board-certified hypnotist, didn’t know that she had a story waiting to be told. In 2006, she attended a week-long memoir-writing class conducted by a bestselling author, Joyce Maynard. Joyce worked hard to bring out Roberta’s best work, in spite of her self-perceived lack of talent. While it was an awesome experience to be instructed by a well-known author, Roberta determined that writing about herself was not a talent she possessed. As a first-time author, Roberta now understands she was simply destined to write in a different genre. She enjoys creating relatable characters and watching the story unfold as she types. Like her readers, she wonders what’s going to happen next. A sequel to A Knock on the Door  is already being written.

Author Roberta K. Fernandez

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What Meets the Eye by Alex Kenna Review

What Meets the Eye by Alex Kenna, an electric and polished debut thriller that explores the dangers of unbridled ambition, greed, and quests for revenge. Read my full review.

What Meets the Eye Synopsis

Kate Myles was a promising Los Angeles police detective, until an accident and opioid addiction blew up her family and destroyed her career. Struggling to rebuild her life, Kate decides to try her hand at private detective work—but she gets much more than she bargained for when she takes on the case of a celebrated painter found dead in a downtown loft.

When Margot Starling’s body was found, the cause of death was assumed to be suicide. Despite her beauty, talent, and fame, she struggled with a host of demons. But as Kate digs deeper, she learns that Margot had a growing list of powerful enemies—among them a shady art dealer who had been selling forged works by Margot. Kate soon uncovers a dirty trail that leads straight into the heart of the city’s deadly underworld.

Margot died for her art—and if Kate doesn’t tread lightly, she could be the next to get brushed out.

(Crooked Lane Books, December 2022)

Alex Kenna | Pub Date 12.06.2022 | ISBN 978-1-63910-184-9 | 288 pages

Book Review

What Meets the Eye by Alex Kenna gives us everything we expect from a thriller. It’s a twisty and absorbing read, complete with a suitably flawed but very likeable lead. Alex Kenna is the real deal, a true talent. Her prose is stunningly eloquent and characterization masterful. Thematically, Kenna delivers obvious messages about ambition and revenge and the dangers they pose when left unrestrained, along with a powerful theme around sexual exploitation and violence against women that reminds us how infuriatingly endemic both remain within our society.

The book opens with a prologue set six months prior to the present day that ends with a bang. We meet Margot Starling, a beautiful, talented, ambitious, and highly successful artist, but also a tortured soul. We’re learning a little of Margot’s backstory when someone knocks on her door. Peeping out, she gasps and drops the glass of whiskey in her hand, the glass shattering on the floor. And masterfully, Kenna has arrested our attention, leaving us desperate to learn more.

Moving into present day in the first chapter, Kenna introduces us to the engaging lead, Kate Myer, a former LAPD detective turned private investigator. An on-duty incident not only left Kate with severe back injuries that ended her law enforcement career, but in turn, addicted to pain pills. The addiction cost Kate her already shaky marriage, as well as custody of her daughter, to her cold and unfeeling attorney ex-husband. Kate, after beating the narcotics addiction, is still struggling to pick up the pieces, trying to rebuild her confidence and her life into something approaching normalcy. When Milt Starling comes to Kate, he tells her the police have ruled his daughter’s death a suicide, but insists she wasn’t suicidal. He believes someone murdered her and wants to hire Kate to prove it. Kate is reluctant to take the case. A former police detective, she knows the cops usually get such things right and so believes she would only take Starling’s money to deliver more pain rather than comfort by confirming the death was suicide. The more Starling tells her about his daughter, the more certain Kate is the woman killed herself. But Starling is persistent, and Kate needs to pay her rent. So she relents and accepts the case. The lives of Kaye Myers and Margot Starling then become intertwined. And while she had no way to know it at the outset, Kate’s fateful decision has thrust her into something she doesn’t truly grasp and that comes with personal risks she can’t even imagine.

Time shifts between chapters. Sometimes it’s days. Sometimes months. And sometimes several years pass before we return to the present. Interspersed with the time shifts are multiple narrators offering differing perspectives. I’m not usually a fan of flashbacks, mostly because authors rarely do the technique well and often it causes the pacing of a novel to suffer. But it all works here because Kenna pulls it off seamlessly without detracting from the unfolding events in the present. Also, Kenna’s use of multiple narrators is a creative and effective way of giving readers snippets of the backstory and baggage of the primary characters without it being a distraction.

“And frankly, I’m competent despite my shortcomings. I’m a better-than-average PI. In another life, I was a damn good detective.”

Kate Myers is a deeply flawed character. Flawed protagonists have become a staple in crime fiction, almost an overused trope. And often authors find it hard to balance their characters faults or foibles with relatability and likeability. But in Kate, Kenna gives us a character who we engage with effortlessly, realizing without having to think about it that her flaws help make her feel like a real person, almost like a friend. Someone we feel we know intimately and understand. And she certainly wrings out our emotions by the time this book ends.

What Meets the Eye is a riveting read that deftly entangles the reader in the narrative as it unfolds in the past and present via multiple narrators. Kenna’s writing feels effortless, but we know that reflects the skill required to remove the focus from the words, making them mere vehicles that transport the reader into the story itself. Here the characters become real people, making us forget they exist only because someone clever and talented created them for us.

This is a book that will appeal to lovers of fast-paced thrillers and readers who enjoy novels with strong prose and characters.

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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The Long Way Out by Michael Wiley Review

The Long Way Out by Michael Wiley, an intense character study of a man in crisis, a bleak tale of someone running from his troubled past toward an equally perilous future. Read my full review.

The Long Way Out Synopsis

A Franky Dast Mystery #2

Franky Dast is an unlikely hero. But when a desperate Mexican family turn to him, rather than trust the authorities, to help them track down their teenage daughter’s murderer, he is compelled to help. When another body shows up and he is personally threatened, Franky doubles-down on his investigation. Can Franky stop this vicious killer and find his own way out of his personal hell before it’s too late?

(Severn House, January 2023)

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Genre(s) Crime & Mystery

Michael Wiley | Pub Date 01/03/2023 | ISBN 9781448309849 | 240 pages

Book Review

Set in contemporary, small-town Florida, The Long Way Out by Michael Wiley is a novel in which the lives of an ex-con wrongfully incarcerated in prison for eight years for crimes he didn’t commit, a group of undocumented migrants, and a psychopathic serial killer are inextricably bound by a series of murders. It’s an intense character study of a man in crisis, a bleak tale of someone running from his troubled past toward an equally perilous future, and Wiley maintains the tension about his character’s fate throughout.

Franky Dast, recently released from prison after spending eight years there for a pair of murders he didn’t commit, is trying to put his life back together. But it isn’t easy. After prison, he successfully found and identified the killers who committed the murders a court wrongfully convicted him of. But the aggressive detective who arrested and framed him still has it in for Franky, and many in the community still regard him with suspicion. He lives permanently in a low rent motel and works as a gofer at an exotic animal rescue facility. Picking up dead chickens at a local commercial chicken farm to feed to the big cats at the animal rescue is one of Franky’s daily duties. That brings him into frequent contact with undocumented migrants who work at the chicken farm. When the fourteen-year-old daughter of a migrant family that Franky knows disappears, her mother begs Franky to look for her. The woman has heard about Franky finding the actual killers from the murders the authorities had pinned on him and believes Dast can help. But Franky refuses. A few days later, boaters find the girl’s body floating in a river. Partly because of the regret he feels for refusing to help the migrant family and partly because he is struggling to find meaning in his own life, Franky embarks on a private crusade to uncover the girl’s killer with shocking consequences. He digs into the murder and finds out the circumstances are far more convoluted than expected. While the premise of a former death row inmate investigating a murder as sort of an amateur private detective strains credibility, it makes for an interesting and quite imaginative story, as long as you don’t think about it too much. Wiley skillfully gives play to Franky’s shifting voice over its full emotional range―compassionate, disillusioned, cynical, desperate, and more. In Franky Dast, the author offers a precisely drawn portrait of a classic antihero living a life of near futility while attempting to come to grips with the personal trauma he has experienced. Franky’s heart-wrenching story is palpable and the type to stick with readers long after they turn the last page. Wiley balances the plot twists and turns with the weighty and complicated issues surrounding desperate economic migrants flowing across the country’s southern border hoping to find a better life. Instead, they too often find, on one hand, people openly hostile to them and, on the other, individuals eager to exploit their desperate circumstances to gain cheap labor. As the novel progresses, it picks up a propulsive energy that compels us to keep reading straight through to the end when the rising sense of tension comes to a shocking head.

I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley used for this review, which reflects my own honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★

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Only the Lonely by Tamara von Werthern Review

Some may say Only the Lonely by Tamara von Werthern doesn’t fit the crime fiction mold. That’s okay, since it’s sort of the point. Tamara shows quick wit and humor in this wickedly funny, wildly imaginative thriller that is as gripping as it is entertaining.

Only the Lonely Synopsis

An Accidental Detective Mystery #1

Tamara von Werthern is a British-German writer, primarily for stage and screen. In her debut novel, originally published in German in 2017, she places her eccentric real-life father in the middle of a spoof crime novel and creates a lovable hapless detective figure with a canine sidekick, Maschka.

Detective Philipp drives a number of battered old cars, chases the woman of his dreams and gets embroiled in dangerous tight spots in his first adventure. The novel is set in the author’s hometown, where her father still lives. It is as much an auto-biographical depiction of a father-daughter relationship as a humorous crime novel suitable for young and old.
(Para-Site Publications, 2022)
Genre(s) Crime & Thrillers, Cozy Mysteries

Tamara von Werthern | Pub Date 2022 (EN) | ISBN 9780955951145

Book Review

Some may say Only the Lonely by Tamara von Werthern doesn’t fit the crime fiction mold. That’s okay, since it’s sort of the point. The publisher’s description bills the book as “a spoof crime novel” but I think it fits the criteria of a cozy mystery just as well. So, take your pick. What I know for sure after reading this book is Tamara von Werthern has to be one of the most underrated and hilarious crime writers around. Only the Lonely is a wickedly funny, wildly imaginative thriller that is also as gripping as it is entertaining. And I’m not saying nice things about her or the book only because she followed me back on Twitter. You know how when a friend tells you they just read a book that’s absolutely dazzling and divine, and you simply must read it? Then you do, but it doesn’t live up to the hype. Well, this isn’t that book. Tamara von Werthern shakes up all the PI clichés and tropes with sharp wit and plenty of pathos while spinning a pretty good mystery that has moments of heart-pounding suspense. This is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in recent memory, and I can’t hype it enough.

The book opens with a gloomy and cryptic prologue where an unidentified narrator bemoans their unimportance and how they’re waiting their turn to seize the happiness that comes so easily to others. Then we meet our protagonist, Philipp von Werthern, a private investigator. Well, strictly speaking, Philipp is no private eye. He owns a moving company and sells insurance on the side. But he once helped a friend named Laura recover a piece of stolen jewelry. Laura, prone to exaggeration, refers her friend, Annelie Janssen, who needs a private investigator’s service, to Philipp, giving him rave reviews. Janssen, a blonde bombshell who looks Scandinavian to Philipp, arrives at his home with her tale of woe. Philipp, immediately smitten, decides not to tell her he isn’t actually a private investigator and asks her the nature of her problem. Janssen reveals someone with obvious skill has surgically amputated one of her cat’s paws, but the local police not only refused to investigate but laughed at her when she went to them for help. Hoping to spark a romance with Janssen, Philipp agrees to take the case. He accompanies her to her home and inspects the cat’s amputated paw, and agrees someone severed it with great skill. And during the visit, he grows even more enamored with Janssen and believes she feels the same about him. Bereft of any investigative skills beyond what he has picked up from reading detective novels, Philipp bumbles through interviews with a neighbor and Janssen’s housekeeper, but makes no progress in solving the mystery of the severed cat paw. Then, a genuine mystery with real stakes confronts Philipp when Annelie disappears without a trace. A panicked Philipp desperately searches for her with no one to help but his trusty sidekick, Maschka, his golden retriever.

The quick wit and humor Tamara von Werthern weaves into her entertaining tale grabbed me from the start and had me not only in stitches but turning the pages to learn what happened next. You might think comedy and crime thrillers don’t mix, but you’ll think differently after reading just a few pages of this book.

Book rating: ★★★★

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